What Prompted this Lawyer to Dedicate His Career to Family & Fertility Law
Intro: You’re listening to the Australian Family and Fertility Law Podcast. Here’s your host, Stephen Page.
Dan Toombs: Welcome to this special edition of the Page Provan Family and Fertility Law Podcast. My name is Dan Toombs, and today we’re doing something a little different. We’re turning the spotlight on Stephen Page to learn more about why he does what he does. Stephen, welcome to your podcast.
Stephen Page: Thanks, Dan. I must say it feels odd to be a guest of my own podcast, but there you go.
DT: Stephen, why family law?
SP: It was a complete accident. I went to uni and after the first year of study, I decided I actually should study. And so I’m studying. And I really love trust, equity and trust. That was something that thrilled me. No end the intellectual content of it. And when I got to family or I thought, oh, my God. Palm tree justice stuff, I just I hated family law or I hated studying it. And I got out of it, and I worked at a law firm that dealt with insurance.
I didn’t know how much one could hate doing insurance law until you actually do it. And I had a lawyer there who was subsequently known as the Duchess of Divorce. She would swear, smoke, throw things, argue at length with absolutely everybody. But her clients loved her because she was there for them. She just saw this. This was her calling and when I saw her in that process because I was working directly under her, that she was changing people’s lives. And there was a direct connection between lawyer and client.
It wasn’t acting on behalf of a Corporation, some person you never met working in an office somewhere. This is actually a real person, and that’s what really appealed to me. So I decided to do family law from that point on.
DT: Family law by nature, though, it’s a difficult area of law. I mean, I know trust and do an insurance law that’s fairly dry. But as we know, the cut and run nature of family law is intense, and it’s a hard game.
A former President of Law Society who used to be a family lawyer said it’s the most difficult area of law, and I suppose he was a family lawyer describing it. So you have to take that with a pinch of salt. But I think that’s a fair description. It is so difficult because you’re not only having to deal with uncertainties because much of family law is discretionary, what happens with kids, what happens with money, but it’s people’s emotions. Here are people going through the most important decisions of their lives, either to do with their children or their most important financial decision.
So from a commercial point of view, it is so important. But then there is this overlay of what went wrong in their lives or their relationships, and sometimes they’re associated with that. All too often associated with that is a fear of violence, being unsafe. So mix it all together and you’ve got a potent brew.
DT: Are there times, Stephen, now, in the midst of a difficult matter where you look at the bookshelf behind you and look at the book on equity and trust and whatever you and think you should have stayed there?
SP: No, you don’t live with regrets in life, and I’m most fortunate to help people stand up on their own two feet. What I have been concerned about living in the here and now is when threats have been made to kill me. And I’ve had a few of those over the years just for doing my job and unconscious of the duty I have to clients and to the practice of law. But it can be very personal when a threat is made and you know that this threat could well be carried out and you don’t back off.
You don’t back off in that process. But you take all the action to protect yourself and those that you work with and those who are your loved ones because I’m certainly not going to be intimidated by anyone. No one’s going to push me around. I’m going to make sure I do the job. So I said to my client, I was guarded.
DT: Was it that sort of ethical rigour that you apply to your family law clients and fertility clients, which we’re going to touch on soon? Was it that type of rigour that led you as a young guy who’s got this sniffer family law and says, I like it, but not only do I like it, I’m going to be very good at it? And hence why you embark on a difficult chapter. And that is the accreditation programme run by the Queensland Law Society.
SP: Well, I think we lyrical, as in the words of President Kennedy, when he was talking about going to the moon, he said, We’re not going to try this because it’s easy. We’re going to try this because it’s hard. When you do family law, my view is you just do your job and you do your job well and you do it once, preferably. So do it right the first time. I took the view that it’s better to swim, not sink. I’m naturally a shy person, which is and an introvert, which is hard for those who have to hear laughing.
I know because I talk a lot, but what happened when I came out of uni was here’s a shy person who wouldn’t talk to anyone and having to front up before a stranger, a judge and speak. I know my first court appearance, I stammered through it. It was probably partly because the barrister double-booked himself, threw me under a bus. But I was entirely green and I just figured on, if you’re going to do the job, just do it right. And I was determined not to fail.
And accreditation was part of that process. I was in the first year of accreditation way back in 1996, and I’ve been practising for about nine years at that point, and I figured, Well, I’m going to take advantage of this opportunity. I’m not going to let this go. This is what he offered to me. Well, and do it. And undertaking an accreditation is certainly not an easy process. It’s certainly a great challenge. And I think the greatest problem in my head with the accreditation process is that cheque your bona fides first, any complaints that have been made to get against you, talk to your referees because you had to have some referees to say that you’re okay, and then you have to do an assignment. Then you have to do an exam, and then you’d have to do a more client interview, which was having an actor interview you and you interview an actor who was playing the role of a client and then having that all. The greatest problem I had was the last one because I think I had the world’s worst actor. [laughs]
And he was supposed to be playing a guy who his wife had left him. She was from the Philippines and she’d gone back and he was dead broke. So I asked him this question, which is what’s your cash flow each month? He was a businessman. Every businessman I know always knows how much money they bring in each month. All they’re about or has an idea. And this like this was a question that was not in his script. And he sat there for I would think about 25 seconds, which is an inordinate period to say nothing while the cogs were turning in his brain and remembering he’s saying he’s broke.
And then he came out with this figure of $25,000 or something like that, which was a complete fantasy compared to the rest of the script. I burst out laughing because I thought this is completely unreal. This is not like anything that I’ve ever seen in reality, this guy’s a tool. So I was concerned at that point that I might pass. Well, I passed. Passed, first go, but it was just that exercise. It was just one of those funny incidents. Well, I didn’t expect that.
DT: I should say that for those listening to the podcast, they would be oblivious to this term that lawyers throw around a little bit. This accredited specialist. It is a very, very difficult exam and will not only exam but a series of exams and other evaluations, but only around 10-15% at best actually get through it.
SP: Yeah. I think when I was doing it, it’s actually I think it’s been higher than that. But when I went through it, it was about 70% whereas, in the same year, the pass rate in Victoria and New South Wales was about half that. That doesn’t mean that Queenslanders are so much brighter than some of us. What it meant was that New South Wales and Victoria had been doing it for longer. So what their experience was their pass rate at the beginning was very high because here people have been doing it for quite a while until eventually.
But as each year went by, the seniority of the practitioners was lower and lower until it hit the bare minimum, which is five years full time. At least a quarter of your work is in that practise area. And so these days the pass rate is pretty low. But I was probably one of the youngest of the practitioners who went through the first year. There are people there who have been doing it for 20 or 30 years.
DT: Stephen, you took the family law fairly well, like a duck to water. But another thing that emanated or came to be was your fascination, interest and passion for fertility law. Where did that come from?
SP: Well, like family law, like the duck going onto the family or pond complete by accident. Way back in 1988, I had my first surrogacy case and I was in downtown Beam Led. So I wasn’t in the city. I was just out in the suburbs. It was actually a separate town way back then, and this woman came in and said, “Well, I just want some advice. I’ve given birth to a boy and I’ve been paid $10,000 by a couple to have the child and it’s going to be their child.”
But, you know, it’s not my experiment. This guy [inaudible] evidently. And I want to know whether I can keep both the baby and the money. And I can recall precisely what I was thinking at that time. I was shocked. I was seeing that poor couple here’s. This woman going to do this. And as a matter of law, my advice was, yes, she could, because there had just been passed laws in Queensland these days. Back then, the Internet was largely we really not started. I think I had an innovative boss who was sending documents online at 14 bytes an hour or something like that is incredibly slow.
So I hadn’t look up in books, but they’ve been in Queensland. That said all surrogacy was illegal. I just passed. So I said, Well, you’ve got the money. You can keep it because the contracts void, the money layers where it falls and you’re the mother. So chances are you succeeding the thing they could. But if for some raise and they start proceedings, I think it’s unlikely they’ll start proceedings because the risk of prosecution mater never went to court. And I always wonder whether that boy, he’d now be aged over 30, whether he’s ever been told the truth of how he came into the world.
I suspect he hasn’t. So I started with that. And then after that, shortly after that, I started acting for lesbian clients. And back in the 90s, they were discriminated against in the family court. And that changed, thankfully. So we were dealing with property settlements and divorce, typically when they left their husbands and find themselves in the great Rainbow community with other women. So I was acting for one after another, and then I started doing fertility work. It sort of came out of that. It was a goal.
DT: You became very prolific in terms of not only as a voice around this area, but generally LGBTIQ community generally, but also you were writing prolifically. I mean, you had two or three blog sites. I remember, as a young lawyer, for example, that you’d be on LinkedIn. And here’s another post from Stephen Page. Now, we now know that there’s been four and a half thousand blog posts collectively written over a period of what probably ten years, maybe longer.
SP: Throw what we can in the pan, that’s no worry. I feel like I’m being stalked here. This isn’t in the interview, Mr. Page. I just tell you the information I’ll accumulate on you. [both laugh]
DT: That’s right. But to write that much, you’re obviously passionate about this area. I mean, you just don’t even entertain writing that type of content unless you’re extraordinarily waxed on.
SP: Well, you know, I just think that people they need to be treated decently. And this is an area law. So acting for gay and lesbian clients for a start. So these days, of course, would say those who are members of the Rainbow community or LGBTIQ+, I think, is the latest version of Alphabet Soup. But starting offers going less than clients well, evidently could not conceive their children the old-fashioned way unless they’ve been heterosexual relationship first. So it was a case of covering that issue of conception and with gay clients, that meant through Surrogacy. I think my first international surrogacy case was back in about 2007, which is about the time that I started to blog. I decided that to blog in about 2007. So originally it was about just about divorce and family law, and then it’s about going lesbian, LGBTI issues, and then about surrogacy and adoption, or one, two, three. I just thought it was just something that was timely. And I knew that I’d been practising in that area for a while, quite a while.
And I thought, Well, I should be talking about it.
DT: And did you know at that time that this would eventually sort of manifest in its own way in your own life?
SP: No. Well, I should say yes in a sense in it, I now have three children. I never expected that I have three weddings and two divorces in my life. If you’d said to me in the 20s that by the time you get in your 50s, you’ll have a husband and a right go on. You’re dreaming. There’s no prospect of that at all. But my first wife and I had confronting years from her gynaecologist that she had infertility. And then we discovered that I had infertility. But we’re told bluntly, if you want to have children, if you want to cure this medical problem, you gotta have children now.
SP: And I remember saying to the doctor, We’re in the early 20s, we’re broke. We want to be like everyone else, have a house, then have children. And he said those famous words, “What am I, a financial planner? I’m a doctor.” you know, let the Frypan across the head moment and discovered that both of us, we had classic infertility. I’ve had the pain of seeing. And this was when I was practising in [inaudible], as it turns out, but having the pain or not knowing whether I would ever become a father.
And so staring up at the ceiling. And I don’t know why I looked at the ceiling that I’m doing it now. But I look at the ceiling and saying, God, why have you punished me so? Why is it a case that everyone else can have children but I can’t? And we got lucky. So I’ve got two adult sons and a life moved on. I was lucky enough to fall in love with my husband. And he’s younger than me. Of course, he said, “I want to have a child.”
And I thought, oh, great. I’m gonna be working till I drop and everything associated with that. And then I thought, what I’m actually doing is imposing on him what was the same kind of thing that was going to be imposed on me and are still a reality. And of course said, Well, of course, of course, we’ll have a child. But what I didn’t expect then was back in 2012 after the new government got elected, I took on the attorney general, who was Jared Blade, and of course, is still in process.
But he wanted to criminalise gays, lesbians and singles from undertaking surrogacy. And when you’re a lesbian couple, that the non-birth mother, that she shouldn’t be recognised as a parent. I just thought this was terrible, terrible policy. And I didn’t have an animus towards the Newman government of Campbell Newman. When he was Lord Mayor. He was the first LNP politician to come to Brisbane. What was in the Brisbane going lesbian Business network. And I was the one that got in there. I invited him and both Newman and I were white ribbon ambassadors.
So we are men standing up against violence against women. So nothing personal. I didn’t see anything personal against the Premier at all. All the government. It was just the policy put forward by the attorney.
I was told by others, well, what you were doing, his future here’s, this enormous majority that the Newman government’s got, they can push anything through if they want to put it, put it through, then away they go, it’s all over. And I thought, Well, I put our prospects of success at somewhere between zero and 3%. But it was absolutely essential to put the line in the sand, even if we failed because it was just wrong. And, you know, it’s just a black and white issue. This was just wrong.
You should not be discriminating against people. And I remember the voice of a feisty Australian-Italian Clyde Mine. She’d been the surrogate for her single daughter. And I told her, if you try to do this now, as opposed to when she started a bit of criminal offence. And she said, Governments don’t play God. Governments shouldn’t be playing God about who can’t and can beparents. I thought, wow, I couldn’t have put it that well. So it took ironically, nine months. And I say, ironically, because of course, the length of the pregnancy, to defeat this.
And I remember we had a launch of a petition. We got 5000 signatories. The Australian Christian lobby who opposed his had 10,000. That was fairly depressing. But Anastasia Palshe was the opposition leader, had a team of seven, a sort of like whistling in the dark. She stood up. This defendant new farm park launched it and then stupidly. At lunch. Afterwards, I said to the other six people of this grandly named Queenslanders for Equality. Well, who’s in charge after today? Dumbest thing I think I’ve ever said because of course, one of the people said that laughing the I should be us, Stephen.
And then I went, oh, no, what have I done? And of course, then I was the convener. And at the end of the process, in April the following year, there was only two of us. There was a guy called Phil and myself. And then Phil sends me an email that says, Stephen, I can’t do it anymore. I’ve got burnout. This is all to the burden of this has just been too harsh. I couldn’t blame him. But I thought, oh, great. It’s me against the government.
And I should say it had been put to me that I was being foolish, courageous, in taking on the government may be. But given that I was doing more of this work than anyone else, I figured that if I didn’t stand up and speak at this moment, I would rightly be accused of Quijotes. Then I thought, no, I’ve got a moral obligation to speak up. Anyway. Phil sent that email on the Monday and I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. I thought, Great, me this little guy all on his own against the government.
I’m not going to get anything changed. I was really, really upset and overwhelmed at that moment. And then the Thursday, Brisbane Times broke the news at the government. Basically, I dropped the whole idea, at which point the way to the old came off to those celebrated because I thought, we’d won. A weird one. And it has been extraordinarily harsh and difficult, extremely challenging. But the Law Society was a great ally. Australian Lawyers for Human Rights were great allies. I tried to rope in everyone I possibly could think of, plus more to help, because the more people who assisted, I figured the greater the chance of success.
And anyway, against the odds we won. Huge success. And I was lucky a couple of years later, 2015, I was the first lawyer to get the award of Activist of the Year at the Queens Ball Awards. So that was pretty impressive. And I’m happy that a couple of colleagues have got it since. But I led the way. And it was not only for my fertility work, but it’s also from that period.
DT: Stephen, though, I mean, that epitomised a number of things, but also your own journey. Sexuality. The legal fraternity is renowned for being ultra-conservative, and you are open with your sexuality. And then you open almost Pandora’s box for potentially an avalanche of criticism by taking the government on about a divisive issue.
SP: Look, I remember one afternoon I was on a board of a domestic ballroom charity, and I got a phone call from a host of BBC or his producer, can you come on now? We need you on. This is about the sorry seals before the US. And so I said, okay, I’ll do that. Anyway. I let them know I’ll be late for my board meeting and I get on and I’m waiting and they’ve got the news playing and so on. And then you’re listening along. And then the host says this, we’ve got two guests this afternoon, right?
They didn’t warn me about that and the first guest. And then the host wax lyrical about how this guy was, you know, seems second to God really so wonderful. And then he said, in fact, I’ve even modelled my own life on his. I thought, Well, it’s definitely not me, is it? And then he said, Bring on the ear or Major Jim Wallace for his train Christian only.
DT: Oh, my gosh.
SP: And the other guest is Stephen Page didn’t wait. And I thought, also call forego. So, you know, this guy was just trying to trip me up every available opportunity. And I’m afraid to say that when he asked me highly provocative questions, my response was to speak as slowly as Margaret Thatcher or Phillip Ruddock when questioned, so that there was no doubt about what I was saying. And I also paused up his air time so that by the time it was an unthrilling interview. And then about six months later, another producer has phoned me up and said, Would I go on and this time I said, yes.
This time I was delighted that I was the only guest. And when we spoke, I said, It’s nice to talk with you again. Of course, he had no recollection. But for the first couple of minutes, I’m thoroughly training because I thought, if you’re going to throw me under the bus, so I want to make sure I can run first. So you’ve got to be smart. But I think you’ve got to know who you are and have the courage within yourself and not be bullied in [inaudble]of others.
Too often, lawyers are focused on their own image. And what that actually means is that the conformists, because we are conformists as lawyers, we must be conformists. We are saying that people comply with the law and that we must comply with the law that you don’t use that as an excuse to do nothing. The whole point of being a lawyer is to help others. And I formed the view very early on. If I can’t change the world for the better, then what’s the point in being around?
I want to make sure that I help others. I’ve done that through my career then over many years, mainly because people say, you know, you’ve done all this advice and things too, but mainly it’s helping clients because people come to lawyers because they have a problem, and our job is to problem solve and fix things that they can’t. Sometimes we can. Sometimes we can’t, but often we can advocate for clients and get a better outcome than they would have got or we give advice, etc.
And this whole idea here, people say aspiring lawyers say, I want to be a human rights law. When you’re in family law, you’re dealing with human rights. People get oppressed in their own house, and so it’s getting them to stand up on their own two feet and be able to live a life of freedom and confidence. That’s what, I get a great buzz out of that. But the second way in helping people have kids, you know, there’s just nothing more magical than that. The second way is I have volunteered my time consistently over my career to help others, and that’s typically being an area that relates to the work that I do only because, well, I know that I know what I’m doing, and I can offer value.
And I’m always the view that if I’m doing something, I want to be able to offer baggage. And I ask often did I give value? Have I offered value? Because if I didn’t, then I shouldn’t be doing it, I should do something else.
DT: We both know that there’s lawyers out there who, for whatever reason, don’t get the opportunity to start their own legal practises and almost brand their own personal ethos into that legal practice. Whereas the fortunate experience for you and your partner, Bruce Provan at Page Provan, as you’ve been able to bring almost, you know, incubate both individual collective experiences and drop them into this initiative, this new manifestation of legal practice.
SP: Sure, we’re very lucky. But to get to that point, we’ve been around for a while. I’ve been practising for over 30 years, and you want to make sure that you wake up each morning and try your hardest and be true to yourself. And if you don’t like the place that you’re at, I mean, the workplace that you’re at as a lawyer because it doesn’t hold true to your values, then you go somewhere else. You got to feel comfortable within yourself when you wake up each and every day that you can do the best you possibly can by the people that you work with and the people you represent.
So I’ve been most fortunate in making a decision many, many years ago, when I was not an employer of others when I was not a principal of a law firm, that I wanted to be able to have control over my destiny about who I was and what kind of work I did. So I’ve been lucky that way, but work’s always followed me, Dan. Then, for the last 25 years, people chase me and want me to do work because they recognise that I actually do a pretty good job and try to help people tell me about life.
DT: Tell me about “Life Enabled, Life Simplified.”
SP: Well, it’s sort of one of those catchy slogans you go, “Ha, what does that mean?” And, of course, what’s trying to capture is the two aspects of what we do. We do with family and fertility, we enable people to have children and therefore bring life into the world. We also enable people to get on with their lives after a separation, a divorce, when their lives hopefully become simplified, that they can actually stand on their own two feet. So it’s both of those areas of practice.
But I think it’s a more elegant phrase than a colleague of mine from Florida who does similar work where she said, I deal with making and breaking, making and breaking families, and I think I do it like that. That’s probably a bit crude, but it’s the concept of while we’re talking about families and we’re talking about putting families together, helping people have children when otherwise they couldn’t, and when there is a breakdown in a relationship, whether it is marriage or defective relationship in enabling our clients to stand up on their own two feet. Helping them become safe where needed and making sure that their kids are or particular focus. We’re very much focused on arrangements for children.
DT: Stephen, thanks for joining me on your podcast.
SP: Thanks, Dan!
Outro: Thanks for listening. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate reaching out to Stephen at pageprovan.com.au